Millions of people experience depression and anxiety each year in the United States.
And the numbers are growing, especially for younger generations: Over 2.5 million youth have severe or major depression, but over 60% of them don’t receive any kind of mental health treatment.
Additionally, more than half of American adults with a mental illness report an unmet need for treatment.
To help address the pervasiveness of mental health conditions, a diverse range of treatment options are available, including antidepressant medications.
Antidepressants help many people with depression and anxiety disorders.
In fact, these medications are so common that around 13 percent of American adults have taken them in a 30-day period between the years of 2015-2018.
If you’re looking to learn more about whether or not antidepressants can help you, it’s important to understand who to speak to in order to obtain a prescription.
Why Are Antidepressants Prescribed?
Antidepressants are often prescribed to treat depression.
They work by affecting chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters that are associated with depression, including serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.
There are five main classes of antidepressants, each of which works to affect these neurotransmitters in different ways.
If one type of antidepressant doesn’t help to relieve your symptoms, another type may work better for you.
Common Symptoms of Depression
Depression (also called major depressive disorder, or MDD) is a mental health condition that can affect your quality of life.
Most notably, depression affects how you feel, think, and act.
Though the symptoms of depression can vary between individuals, the most common symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness
- Loss of interest in formerly enjoyed activities
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Changes in sleep behavior (including difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
- Fatigue or low energy
- Feeling of purposelessness
- Slowed movements or speech
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Changes in cognitive behavior (including difficulty making decisions or concentrating)
- Suicidal ideation (thoughts of death or suicide)
Other Antidepressant Uses
Antidepressants can help many people who are experiencing symptoms of depression, but there are additional uses for antidepressants.
Depending on your medical history and symptoms, a provider may also recommend antidepressants for the following conditions:
- Anxiety disorders (including generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Long-term chronic pain (including nerve pain)
Who Can Prescribe Antidepressant Medications?
Thankfully, it’s reported that between 80-90% of people with depression respond well to treatment, and nearly all people experience some relief from their symptoms with treatment.
Antidepressants are a prescription medication and therefore require a prescription from a health care professional.
Generally, you can obtain a prescription for antidepressant medication from two types of health care professionals.
Primary Care Providers
Primary Care Providers (includes family physicians, internists, geriatricians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants who can all prescribe antidepressants) undergo mental health training and can prescribe antidepressant medications.
Before recommending antidepressants, your primary care physician will want to talk to you about your medical history and symptoms.
In some cases, they may ask you to come in for a physical examination.
Because psychiatrists have a medical degree, they can also prescribe medication along with other medical treatments.
Other medical professionals are able to prescribe medications including nurse practitioners and physician assistants (you do not necessarily need to be a physician in order to prescribe medications).
Keep in mind that regardless of how you obtain your prescription, it may take some trial and error to find the right antidepressant for you.
Many psychiatrists and general practitioners may recommend trying out a new prescription for several weeks and keeping track of any side effects experienced.
If you’re experiencing adverse effects, reach out to your psychiatrist or primary care provider to discuss alternate options.
Who Cannot Prescribe Antidepressant Medications?
Licensed mental health professionals can help to provide alternate treatment for depression and anxiety, like talk therapy. However, many of these professionals cannot prescribe medication.
But in some cases, these professionals can make a recommendation to a physician or psychiatrist who can prescribe medication.
K Health offers K Therapy, a text-based therapy program that includes unlimited messaging with a licensed therapist, plus free resources designed by mental health experts to use on your own.
In most states, psychologists are not trained to prescribe medication, even though they are highly trained (usually with a PhD or PsyD) to diagnose and manage mental illness.
However, some states do allow appropriately trained psychologists to prescribe medications.
In these states, psychologists must complete between 1,500-6,000 hours of supervised clinical practice and take a national examination and/or jurisprudence exam to be able to prescribe medication.
States that currently enable appropriately trained psychologists to prescribe medication are:
- New Mexico
In the remaining 47 states, psychologists cannot prescribe antidepressant medication.
In all 50 states, mental health counselors cannot prescribe antidepressant medication.
Although social workers are trained to work in a diverse range of health care settings and to work with patients who may be on antidepressant or psychotropic medication, they are not licensed to prescribe or administer medication.
Though they cannot prescribe medication, many social workers are trained to monitor the effects of antidepressant medication and detect any possible problems or adverse effects.
Primary Care Physician vs Psychiatrist
Both primary care physicians and psychiatrists are medical professionals who are licensed to prescribe antidepressant medications.
But not all patients understand the differences between these two types of doctors:
- Primary Care Physician: Primary care physicians, also known as general practitioners (GPs), are trained in comprehensive, acute, and continuing care. They are skilled in diagnosing and treating a wide range of illnesses and conditions, but also regularly collaborate with other specialists to offer patients the best care possible. In many cases, a primary care physician acts as a patient’s first point of contact to receiving health care.
- Psychiatrist: A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in mental health. Psychiatrists can treat acute issues, such as panic attacks or suicidal ideation, but they can also offer ongoing care for patients with more chronic conditions. Because of their medical training, psychiatrists can interpret the relationship between emotional and physical illnesses to offer customized treatment plans to their patients, including prescription medication.
How to Talk to a Doctor about Mental Health Treatment
Choosing a provider with whom to speak about your mental health is an entirely personal decision.
For many people, the choice comes down to comfort and access.
If you have a good relationship with your primary care provider, speaking with them might be the best first step to getting the help and treatment you need.
If not, finding a psychiatrist might be the right option for you.
In some cases, you may decide to speak with both a primary care provider and a psychiatrist to determine the right treatment plan for your needs.
Keep in mind that there isn’t a right or wrong answer to getting the help you deserve.
If you’re having a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. You can also get free 24/7 support from a suicide and crisis expert by calling or texting 988. If you’d prefer to chat online, you can chat with a suicide and crisis expert by visiting the Lifeline Chat.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
About Prescribing Psychologists. (2014).
Antidepressants: Selecting one that’s right for you. (n.d.).
Antidepressant Use Among Adults: United States, 2015-2018. (2020).
Facts & Statistics. (n.d.).
Primary Care. (n.d.).
Social Workers, Medication, and Scope of Practice. (n.d.).
The State of Mental Health In America. (2022).
What Is Depression? (2021).